The year 1909 introduces into our chronicle one of the more colourful – if less attractive – of those dramatis personae to have owned a Derby winner. The man in question, John Brown, was born in 1850 at Four Mile Creek near Morpeth, the eldest son in the second generation of the Newcastle family coal firm of J. and A. Brown. It was a company founded by his father and uncle in the middle of the 19th century, and his childhood coincided with the move of the firm’s headquarters to Newcastle. John Brown’s uncle was the real guiding spirit of the firm in its early days. It was a privileged start in life but not one that fathered a man of charm or bonhomie with a liberal outlook. I think quite the contrary. John Brown was every inch the dour and taciturn Scot of his forebears; he shunned publicity although possessed of a strong element of theatricality and he seemed to relish the role of the relentless capitalist.
Undoubtedly the leading racehorse breeder in Victoria during the first decade of the twentieth century was Jack Smith of Bundoora Park, thanks mainly to his sensational stallion, Wallace. When Mountain King, a son of Wallace, won the A.J.C. Derby in 1907, he gave his sire the only success he would enjoy in the race. However, there is little doubt that in 1908 with a little bit of luck the great stallion would have made it a double and Jack Smith, like John McDonald the year before, would have basked in the reflected glory of both owning and breeding the classic winner. John Mathew Vincent Smith, better known as Jack or J.V. Smith to a generation of racegoers, was born in 1857, the son of one of the co-founders of the well-known legal firm, Smith and Emmerton. Educated at the Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, he was a natural sportsman in his school days winning glory in both the football and athletic teams. After leaving school and gaining experience on stations in the Hillston and Hay districts of New South Wales, his first real foray into bloodstock came when he established a stud at Linwood Grange – a beautiful estate of some 5000 acres on the Loddon River in central Victoria.
This chapter of our chronicle introduces us to the stud that bred more winners of the A.J.C. Derby than any other during the first half of the twentieth century. Younger readers will be surprised to learn that its location was – of all places – in the northwest of New South Wales, on the Moree Plains in the fertile Gwydir River Valley. It was on January 9, 1832, that Major Thomas Mitchell arrived in the vicinity of Mungie Bundie having set out in November 1831 from the Hunter to investigate the story of the runaway convict, George Clarke, and the great river that flowed northwest to the sea. Mitchell in due course reached the Barwon, near Mungindi. The Baldwin family first squatted and later claimed the run that became famous as the Mungie Bundie Stud.
It was the Hon. Henry Cary Dangar who was responsible for importing Positano, the sire of Poseidon, into this country. In 1896 and chairman of the A.J.C. at the time, he decided to purchase a stallion by St Simon to give to his son, Richard, of Neotsfield. Dangar instructed his old Turf colleague, William Cooper, then racing in England on a grand scale, to look around and acquire one on his behalf. I think Dangar had in mind a well-performed horse at a high price, but as it transpired, William Cooper chose Positano, a poorly performed horse that had failed in his juvenile races over short distances, and didn’t favour his illustrious sire in any outward respect. Positano’s English trainer never imagined that the horse was a born stayer and required both maturity and ground before he would show his best on a racecourse. Nevertheless, this lack of imagination proved to be Dangar’s good fortune, and he was able to acquire the stallion for something around 400 guineas.
To modern racegoers, it must seem that horses bred, owned, and trained, in the Dominion have been crossing the Tasman Sea and plundering Australia’s richest racing prizes since the beginning of time. Actually, it doesn’t go back quite that far. Before 1905 only two New Zealand-bred horses had ever won the AJC Derby: Nordenfeldt (1885), who was purchased at a stiff price and raced here by the Hon. James White; and Bonnie Scotland (1894), who was bought and raced by the New Zealand sportsman, Spencer Gollan, a man who periodically invaded Australia with the best horses from New Zealand that money could buy. But if I were to nominate the year when the full majesty of their bloodstock was first felt at Randwick, 1905 would be that year. For it marked the most successful visit of perhaps the greatest owner-trainer team ever known on the New Zealand Turf, George Gatenby Stead and Richard J. Mason.
In its wild and untamed state, the Widden Valley was once a haven of refuge for bushrangers. It is said to be the valley Rolf Boldrewood in his book ‘Robbery Under Arms’ attributed the members of Captain Starlight’s gang with having used to hide the stock stolen from surrounding districts. Boldrewood was the pen-name of Thomas Alexander Browne, gold commissioner and magistrate at Gulgong after 1871; and he sometimes stayed at Widden Stud on his journeys between the Mudgee districts and Maitland. I might add that Boldrewood’s bushrangers were firmly rooted in real life, and one such man who knew the caves in the Widden was the colourful Frederick Ward, alias Captain Thunderbolt. The beauty and fertility of the Widden Valley are justly renowned throughout Australia.
In the years before World War I, live theatre attained enormous popularity in Australia, and no actress attained greater popularity within that theatre than the beautiful and spirited Nellie Stewart. Born in Woolloomooloo in 1858 the daughter of a theatrical impresario, she was precocious from a young age, performing with her two sisters in entertainments arranged by her father. Her long Australian career included a glorious run with the Royal Comic Opera Company in which she often played pantomime and burlesque; she won universal acclaim in her most famous role as Nell Gwynn in the play “Sweet Nell of Old Drury”.
On the afternoon of Saturday, 17 October 1885, a record 20,000 people crowded into the Caulfield racecourse and watched as the forty-one runners engaged in that year’s Caulfield Cup, filed onto the course. The field was, with a single exception, the biggest that had ever faced a starter in the colonies. It was an unusually open and spirited betting market with three horses sharing favouritism at tens. One of them was Prince Imperial, owned and trained by John Mayo, the esteemed and experienced horseman from Maitland. The jockey on board Prince Imperial was Mayo’s own apprentice, Frank McGrath, who was due to celebrate his twentieth birthday the following day. Horse and rider had already been successful in the prestigious Hawkesbury Grand Handicap, and it was mostly on the strength of that performance that they were so fancied for the Caulfield Cup. As the big field thundered down the hill towards the home turn, it was a scene reminiscent of Lord Cardigan and the battle of Balaclava. Nor was the reminiscence to end there.
There were few family names more resonant in the commerce of Sydney during the first half of the twentieth century than that of Hordern. The huge emporium of Anthony Hordern and Sons stood defiantly on the historic slope of Brickfield Hill proudly proclaiming to the world under its trademark spreading oak tree the motto: ‘While I live I’ll grow.’ And it did. The original Hordern family to migrate to Sydney came from Staffordshire in England in March 1825 and moved to escape family opprobrium over a marriage that was deemed unsuitable. The Horderns quickly moved into merchandising and land speculation in their newly adopted country, acquiring a considerable fortune. The man most responsible for consolidating the Hordern fortunes, and the first Samuel Hordern relevant to our Derby chronicle, was born in Sydney in 1849 on the spot where the original emporium burgeoned.
The spring of 1900 saw the first full blossoming of Jim Scobie’s genius for training horses. Scobie’s first crack at the A.J.C. Derby came in 1895 when he brought Onward and Acton over to Sydney for the Randwick Spring Meeting, and Onward ran second in the race that year. He took up quarters at the Coach and Horses Hotel arriving a week before the Derby although neither horse had much public form to recommend them. It was also the first occasion upon which a young Bob Lewis had ridden for the stable. Weighing less than 6 st. 7lb, Lewis partnered with Acton in both the Epsom Handicap and the Metropolitan Stakes when the horse was handicapped at that weight, although unplaced on both occasions. A neat, ascetic man, Scobie wore his successes modestly and bore his reverses gracefully; he was always the same Jim Scobie in the same style of black felt hat – the type that curates used to wear. Never a man to advertise his prosperity, Scobie exuded a quiet confidence, although, like most successful men, he wasn’t short of enemies.